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Medical student reconnects with heritage through school

University of B.C. medical student Luke Hughson likes rural communities. He grew up in Smithers, BC after all. But he chose to do a one-month elective in the remote community of Bella Coola for a specific reason.
We caught up with him this week for a quick Q&A to find out more about his desire to go to the Central Coast community and how he got into medicine.

Can you tell me about your connection to Bella Coola?

In 1986 my parents were teaching in Victoria and moved to Bella Coola with my brother Jake where my Dad took a principal position at the elementary school in town and my Mom a teaching position at the secondary school in Hagensborg. As I was able to confirm from the birth record book at the hospital a couple days ago, I was born on June 1, 1987 via c-section performed by Dr. Ray McIlwain. Not long after I was born our family moved to Smithers where I grew up.

What motivated you to study medicine?

My path to medicine has been a bit circuitous. During high school my passion was hockey. I played for several clubs across Western Canada before my focus shifted to becoming a teacher like my parents. I spent a year working as a diamond driller’s assistant in Canada’s far north saving to attend university. When I eventually did, I had to take a grade 12 level human biology course to get into the program. This happened to be the best course I ever took and the next semester I switched into a Bachelor of Science and ultimately graduated with honours in biochemistry. During my studies I was extremely fortunate to meet a researcher at the BC Cancer Agency who hired me onto his team with limited experience. Over the course of four years working at the BCCA and surrounded by patients coming to and from the centre, I ultimately realized that my calling was in medicine.

Why did you choose Bella Coola for a one-month elective?

I wanted to come to Bella Coola for a Family Medicine elective because of the stories I heard growing up about the strong and embracing character of the people and community here and also to explore my family’s roots in the area. My maternal great grandfather, John Keefe, and his father in law, Jacob Henkel, came to Bella Coola in the early 1900's and outfitted themselves at what I understand was the Brynildsen store before taking packhorses through what is now Tweedsmuir Park to become some of the first European pioneers in the Ootsa Lake /Francois Lake area. My grandpa, John Keefe Jr., later came to Bella Coola in 1952 to work in Forestry where he operated a patrol boat called the “White Birch” and even spent his honeymoon accompanying the Freedom Highway survey crew along with local area expert Clayton Mack, whose books I really enjoyed reading a couple summers ago.

Can you share your experiences so far?

Since arriving about a week ago I’ve been reminded of the awesome natural beauty of the Chilcotin plateau and Bella Coola valley and have had the privilege of meeting some great people around the hospital and community. It’s been a highlight to hear perspectives from people who have been in the valley a long time as well as fresh impressions from others who are relatively new to the area. I think it’s a unique place and a real gem in the province of B.C.

What are you hoping to gain from your experience in Bella Coola?

Having grown up in northern B.C. I’m familiar with some of the challenges people experience when faced with serious medical conditions in a rural area. My main goal coming to Bella Coola is to learn as much as I can about being an effective generalist physician in a remote community so that I can contribute positively in the health care system and help to address some of those challenges.

What activities do you enjoy doing in Bella Coola?

So far I’ve enjoyed going on walks and familiarizing myself with the town, exploring some of the great hikes, biking sections of the highway, and fly-fishing on the Bella Coola and Atnarko rivers. On two occasions in the last five years I’ve been lucky to travel out to the Dean River for family fishing trips thanks to my Uncle, Doug Berger. There are so many cool trails and things to explore here, I wish I had more time. It’s an area I would love to come back to.

What are you future plans?

The next step for me will be to complete four to five years residency training in Internal Medicine at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. My ultimate wish is to return to northwest B.C. as a general internist, with the intention to serve in a rural community.
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